Alea III brought familiar and less familiar Stravinsky to Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center last Thursday, featuring a fruitful collaboration with the BU School of Theater for a performance of L’Histoire du Soldat. The first half of the concert featured a couple of post-neoclassical (and perhaps less familiar) works which added great variety.
From behind most of the audience in the far left and right balcony, two trumpets began Stravinsky’s Fanfare for a New Theatre (1964). Sharply articulated chromatic passages bounced back and forth between trumpeters Lotte Olson and Neal Andrews, full of tone and vigor. The piece is short even for a fanfare, but makes a bold and intriguing statement with its evocative use of antiphony (an experience much heightened by the positioning of the performers). Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, a much earlier piece, took on a completely different character. A subdued, disjunct first movement contrasts with a wild second movement, leaping through arpeggios and down scales of distant related (but still tonally centered) keys. The third movement is more dancelike, with an irregular tactus that journeys through off-axis meters. The piece demands virtuosity from any clarinetist, and Diane Heffner played it masterfully, offering all its quirky characteristics and subtleties while revealing none of its difficulty.
The performance of Stravinsky’s 1953 Septet featured a larger group of Alea III’s core. Scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and piano, this piece exhibits the early phases of the composer’s gravitation toward serial techniques, such as those more insistently integrated into the opening Fanfare. The rhythmic profile that characterizes so much of the composer’s earlier works is still tangible in the Septet, and for the triptych’s outer movements, that makes things all the more compelling. The ensemble tapped into the range of character in the opening sonata and closing gigue, conveying the fascinating musical narrative and invoking the music’s unique blend of joy and aggression. The second movement is a bit less compelling, as we get a sense of the composer’s identity crisis between his more firmly grounded stylistic orientations. A keen intuition of pacing becomes undermined by wanderings through a series of rather arbitrary melodic transpositions, retrogrades, and inversions. The players deserve high commendation for keeping the passacaglia as interesting and musical as possible; each phrase was shaped with purpose and clarity. The connectivity between Janet Underhill (bassoon) and Parker Nelson (horn) was particularly adept, as were the sensitivity and overall level of ensemble musicality by pianist Yukiko Shimizaki.
The arrangement of The Rite of Spring for four hands marked a striking return to neoclassical Stravinsky, although one realizes quickly just how crucial color and instrumentation are to this masterpiece. I have often found that performances of piano reductions of large-ensemble works can provide listeners with new insight into the fundamentals of the piece—something previously unnoticed about the harmony, or some connection among distant sections that is removed by the interpretative layer of orchestration. But while pianists Bing Shen and Kwan Seop Shim’s performance was expertly coordinated, nuanced, and vigorous, the Rite of Spring in piano arrangement unfortunately falls flat.
Last was a performance of Soldier’s Tale in its entirety, complete with a narrator and three actors. The level of instrumental performance was matched by the actors. Narrator Tom Wark was charismatic and delightfully entertaining, as were Sam Farnsworth (soldier), Lennie Naughton (devil), and Kiera Muckenhirn (princess). Noteworthy in this performance were convincing actors who can also follow their cues as notated in the score (which is sometimes quite rhythmically specific and difficult for anyone without a good deal of musical training). Violinist Krista Buckland Reisner played the extensive and difficult soloist passages marvelously. Lotte Olson (trumpet) and Craig McNutt (percussion) also stood out . It must be mentioned that the score for L’Histoire is something of a concerto for conductor, dividing a large amount of rather regular rhythms into utterly bizarre metric groupings. Konstantinos Diminakis conducted brilliantly, especially considering that the piece is scored such that the conductor often does more harm than good.
Alea III’s activities for the season will continue in February, when the ensemble will host a weeklong residency of readings, masterclasses, and recordings at the Berklee College of Music.